Category Archives: MMOG

Is Social Interaction Really That Important to MMOG Players?

A particularly interesting post on Terra Nova reveals the results of an eight month, detailed study of World of Warcraft. The dataset includes information from over 150,000 characters, so it’s certainly thorough enough. The post claims that the results of the study contradict the commonly-held assumption that people play MMOGs primarily for the social interaction they offer. However, it isn’t clear to me that the data really supports such an argument More on that.

Among the study’s most interesting findings: early-stage players (level 40 and below) spend only 30% of their time in groups, and less than half of WoW players belong to a multi-person guild. Furthermore, the average guild member collaborates (in quests, etc.) with only 11% of his/her guildmates for more than 10 minutes over the same month.

First, this data could indicate that many players rush through the early levels in order to enjoy end-game content with their friends. (Indeed, the study also found that end-game characters spend far more time in groups.) Second, guild members may form strong relationships with a small percentage of their guildmates and choose to group with them whenever possible. (They may not even have a choice, if those guildmates are the only guildmates who regularly play WoW at the same time of day.) Of course, all this could be incorrect as well. I’m just saying it isn’t clear.

The post also states that players favor “soloable” classes like hunters and warriors. (Data here.) That certainly has merit as an argument against social inclination. However, Warlocks are soloable, and they’re the least-played Alliance class. Players may prefer warriors and hunters for any number of unrelated reasons (for example, some may choose warriors because that class enjoys access to the broadest variety of weapons and armor.)

Lastly, from the post: “despite features like WoW’s ‘group xp bonus’, grouping is an inefficient way to level, which naturally steers the more ‘hardcore’ players away from groups (at least, in the early stages of the game).” But if the system is inherently biased against group play at early levels, I don’t see how you can make any major assumptions about social inclination from the data.

Long story short, I’d like to know more before accepting any pronouncements. That said, I’d bet a few developers would be pleased to learn that social interaction is not so important, since accommodating social interaction tends to engender the thorniest design problems.

Designing an MMORPG Feedback Rating System

As promised, I wrote an article about designing an MMORPG feedback rating system, which Gamasutra was kind enough to publish. You can read the full article here.

I’ve already received a few thoughtful emails about the article, some of which I’d like to address here. One person asked how my proposed design might relate to previous designs that took PVP activity into account. The answer is: it does not, and should not. My design is intended to help ensure that people enjoy group play (which, in many MMORPGs, is 90% of the fun at later levels). PVP is extraneous and should have its own control mechanism(s). After all, someone who mercilessly hunts you down in a PVP setting may still be an excellent group member.

Another person asked how my system might compare to the feedback system in EVE-Online. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet had the opportunity to try EVE; I’ve been meaning to for weeks. That said, the EVE system sounds interesting, if somewhat more complex than what I’ve proposed. It also appears to dictate some NPC behavior, which I’ve left open in my proposed system. It isn’t clear to me that a user feedback system necessarily has to influence NPCs, since that could intensify user desire to try to game the system, and it could (in general) amplify any unanticipated negative side-effects of the system.

Thanks to everyone for all your feedback thus far.  :)

Franchise IP-Based MMORPGs: Good or Bad?

Via Slashdot, an interesting debate over whether MMORPGs benefit sufficiently from being based on major franchise IPs (like Star Wars). Paraphrasing the arguments in favor:

  • It almost guarantees a strong launch.
  • Design limitations required by the IP actually enhance the design process by focusing developer innovation within a narrower subset of possibilities.
  • The popularity of the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter movies proves that you can create your own vision of a franchise and still make (enough) fans happy.

Arguments against:

  • Players turn away from IP-based MMORPGs because they cannot live up to the fanbase’s expectations. At the same time, original content (which an MMORPG must have) is always at risk of offending sensitive fans.
  • Developers have less flexibility when designing the environment, its rules, and the content that makes the game interesting (or not).
  • With pre-existing protagonists (i.e. Luke Skywalker) running around, players are left to portray secondary bit-players at best. Players want to be heroes, not bit-players.

The arguments against seem more persuasive to me. That said, I think it’s premature to assume that franchise-based MMORPGs can’t work. Many have worried about sensitive fans, and there is real risk there… but on the other hand, fans clearly are willing to embrace new, well-conceived content; so willing, in fact, that they often create their own. I wish I had a dollar for every homemade Star Wars script.

Naysayers generally flaunt Star Wars Galaxies as proof that franchise-based MMORPGs can’t work, but SWG’s failure had little to do with “sensitive fans” or protagonist-envy, and more to do with the fact that SWG was boring. Quoting from the Gamespot review: “…gameplay is generally slow and uneventful, and that once the novelty of the Star Wars setting wears off–and it probably will–there isn’t much of interest to be found in the game at this point.” We’ll never know if most fans would have tolerated much “original” content because of this.

Nor will we ever know if “protagonist-envy” could have been dealt with by simply making it a little easier to become a jedi (as opposed to making it trivial, which is what Sony did with its disastrous new game enhancements). And players were given extremely limited tools via which to enrich the universe with their own content and stories, despite claims that SWG would be a paradise of user-generated content. Players wanted to contribute, but most found the process too unrewarding. And that’s a shame, because capturing that energy is one of the things a great franchise-based MMORPG could potentially do very well.

Interview with Mark Kern (Red 5 Studios)

For those who don’t know, Mark Kern (the former team lead for World of Warcraft) recently left Blizzard to form his own MMO development company, Red 5 Studios. Mark took a brief respite from 24/7 entrepreneurship to answer a few of my questions:

When World of Warcraft first came to market, it succeeded in part by addressing some serious design flaws that plagued other MMORPGs. Now the competition has learned. How will Red 5 distinguish itself from companies like Blizzard, Sony, Ncsoft, Turbine, etc?

Competition is a good thing. We were certainly aware of it on our last project and I think we did well. So, it isn’t a new thing for us. I think World of Warcraft’s design and implementation caught many people off guard. Most felt it was the wrong direction to take and predicted that the game would quickly burn out. They are just starting to absorb the reasons why it worked, while we have the advantage of already internalizing those lessons.

To remain competitive, we will have to stay ahead of the curve, and build on what we’ve already learned. Being small has its advantages, in that we can take greater risks and are nimble enough to change direction quickly if we need to. We are also 100% focused on development. We didn’t want to have to split our attention between making the game and deploying, marketing and operating it like most other MMO studios. This can be a huge distraction.

Read the rest of the interview…

Philip Rosedale: Welcome to Second Life

I’m at the GSD&M Digital America Conference today. One of the featured speakers is Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Linden Lab, maker of the MMOG Second Life. Here’s the talk recap:

There are 100k users of Second Life, spending approximately two million hours per month in-game. Unlike most games, everything in Second Life was built by the game’s users. Linden Lab just provides “the virtual dirt.” Users can do anything in Second Life that they can do in the real world: learn to dance, play games that other users have made, drive cars… anything. 43% of users are female, the average age is 32, and 25% of users are international.

There are thousands of people creating goods and services within Second Life. The linden dollar (an in-game currency) can be traded for real US dollars in an exchange supported by Linden Lab, and vice versa. There are currently $50M US dollars worth of annual transacations within Second Life. Users spend, on average, almost a dollar an hour. There is even a b2b component (i.e. there are actually virtual businesses supplying other virtual business with product in-game.)

Second Life works because of two technological milestones: common access to broadband and a certain level of 3d processing capability. People you need to give people a meaningful level of creative capability before they’ll make a time investment in something like Second Life.

Kasi Nafus, one Second Life player, is probably making approximately $60k per year by selling virtual clothing in-game. Anshe Chung, “the most powerful person in Second Life”, is a virtual real estate developer. She buys and develops real estate, then turns it around to other users for a profit. Anshe’s probably making between $150K – $200K per year. She owns approximately 5-6% of all the acreage in Second Life. There’s a $1k cost associated with the purchase of a new 16 acre plot of land, since that much land requires another server to support it. Linden Lab also charges all virtual land owners a recurring land tax.

Charitable events are very popular in Second Life. With a single event, the American Cancer Society raised the same amount of money (per person) in one day in Second Life than they would have over several months in a small US city.

Philip begins a real-time, live demo of Second Life. He takes a screen shot of a fellow player, builds a giant poster in a few seconds, and pastes the picture onto the poster for all to see. Next, he begins chatting with two users who are virtually cuddling nearby. One of them is dressed in an outfit covered with kittens; the other seems to have a virtual bluetooth headset in his ear. The wearer of the headset gives Philip a notecard explaining what it does (all sorts of in-game communication functions!) He says that he paid 250 linden dollars for the device. Philip tells the audience: “The only precious resource in Second Life is your intelligence.”

Philip decides to “change clothes.” He turns into a robot, then starts flying around (anyone can fly in Second Life). He soars off into the distance, surrounded by a seemingly endless quantity of content…

Feedback Firestorm

Thanks to unexpected attention from digg.com, my brief news post on accusations of discrimination in World of Warcraft has drawn thousands of visitors to this site. Had I known that would happen, I would have spent more time on the post! I don’t normally bother to write about the same subject twice in one week, but this situation seems to merit some followup.

First: many visitors appear to have assumed that I was accusing all language-selective WoW players of racism. I would never make such a blanket accusation, news-based or otherwise. That would be as foolish as, oh… assuming that all foreign players are gold farmers. To anyone who felt unfairly accused, my apologies.

Second: It’s worth quickly glancing at the comments on my post, and on the digg entry leading to it. You can draw your own conclusions about them.

Third: My thoughts on encouraging diversity were idle speculation… intended to start a dialogue, not dictate hard and fast changes to MMORPGs. Multiplayer video games have tremendous potential to bring people together, no matter where they live or what they look like. For years, the video game industry has itself trumpeted this as one of the most promising aspects of games; a worthy rebuttal (among many others!) to the accusation that games offer nothing of social value. All the sadder, then, to see several people make comments like (and I’m paraphrasing, here): “foreigners should stick to their OWN servers!”

Fourth: the most common objection to my post was that players have legitimate reason to reject poor English speakers, since they might not understand directions, might ruin the raid, etc. I readily admit (as I did in an earlier comment) that I would not personally accept someone into my group if they spoke almost no English … it would unnecessarily complicate gameplay. But there’s a wide gulf between “perfect, unbroken English” and “almost no” English. I’ve got friends in Europe and South America who may not be able to spell perfectly, but they understand enough to avoid trouble, play their part, and generally contribute to the cause. It doesn’t take fluency to understand the less-than-Shakespearean instructions I generally hear being barked out during any given raid.

There are many ways to address legitimate player fear of potentially bad group members. One possible solution is an in-game reputation / feedback system (ala eBay), which could be used by players to ding other players who behave poorly or dishonerably while in a group. I’ll attempt to describe my idea of a functioning, relatively low-maintenance rep system in a future post.

*Update: there’s an interesting comment on this post that explains why Singaporeans (among other people) legitimately wind up in English-speaking servers, aside from immigration to the US. It’s 2nd from the top in the list.

*2nd Update: strangely, some people seem to be assuming that I “support” gold farming because I’m concerned about the cultural divide. Not that it should require clarification, but these two things are not automatically correlated…

Discrimination in World of Warcraft

Apparently, discrimination is becoming a problem in World of Warcraft. Some players are refusing to accept other players into their group unless they can chat in perfect, unbroken English. This phenomenon is being blamed on a widespread backlash against the practice of gold farming, which is unfairly associated with all non-English speakers in general.

There is nothing new to this. The particulars might be unique, but the basis for this behavior has always been there, lying just under the surface of all multiplayer video games. I will never forget the first time I logged onto a multiplayer server and saw one game session entitled “NO JEWS”. I joined the session, of course (in addition to all our other faults, we Jews can’t follow directions.) I thought I might learn something from the experience, but after 20 very sad minutes, all I’d discovered was a strong correlation between bigotry and the use of foul language.

Gold farming has simply become a handy excuse for some people to indulge in their darker impulses. So what can MMORPG developers do about it? 1) Don’t add fuel to the fire by publishing scathing remarks about the practice of gold farming. If you don’t like it, just deal with it quietly, fairly, and efficiently. 2) Reward diversity. Perhaps groups that are comprised of players from different countries could be rewarded with an experience point bonus? Or perhaps diverse guilds could be rewarded in some way? These are just idle thoughts, but I think the idea is at least worth considering. Bringing people together is one of the most socially-beneficial things an MMOG could ever do. And hey, you might even be able to get some decent PR out of it.

PS. If you haven’t read always_black’s famous short story, Bow Nigger, you really should.

*Update: in response to the unexpected controversy this has generated, I’ve posted a followup for clarification’s sake.

*Update 2: as promised, in response to all the controversy, I’ve written an article for Gamasutra about designing an MMORPG user feedback system, which is meant to address legitimate player concerns about bad teamwork, loot theft, etc.

Second Life Loses a Customer

Thanks to a post on Clickable Culture, I’ve just discovered another user-generated-content-centric MMORPG called Active Worlds.

Apparently Wells Fargo is transitioning its private MMOG, Stagecoach Island, out of Second Life and into Active Worlds. Stagecoach Island attracted plenty of attention back when it was announced, just three months ago.

I’ve read a few rumors attempting to justify the move, but nothing that I think merits a reprint. I’d love to know more. Was Linden Lab (maker of SL) asking for “too much” money? Providing “too little” support? Did Second Life prove “too buggy” a platform? Questions, questions…

PS. My rant of the day: why are the interfaces on these otherwise fascinating user-centric MMORPGs so damned ugly and complicated? I realize that you need to empower gifted players with numerous interesting tools (so they can make interesting content), but a mass audience will never see that content if they get scared off by Frankenstein’s UI! If you can’t imagine a more streamlined and user-friendly system, then for goodness sake, make two — a simplified UI that’s enabled by default, and an advanced UI that scares the pants off of children (like we have now). You can expect advanced users to find the on/off switch; you can’t expect the average user to navigate a million options, nor learn the workings of a non-intuitive interface via miles and miles of ugly in game tutorial posters…

Potential Liabilities Faced by MMOG Developers

Terra Nova just posted an article about a recent change in Second Life that has effectively devalued the property of many SL denizens. The article quotes a lawyer who cites established legal precedent to explain why Linden Lab (developer of SL) may be at legal risk in this (and related) matters. The basic argument: LL gave users good reason to think that some virtual land plots are worth more than others, so LL can be held liable for actions that devalue the land, no matter how many waivers users agree to when playing SL.

This is just one of the many unresolved legal issues popping up for MMOGs, and especially MMORPGs. I couldn’t find a good, succinct list online, so I’ve compiled one:

  1. What happens when one player steals another player’s property?
  2. What happens when players generate content that infringes upon the copyrights or trademarks of real-world companies? (Here’s an example other than City of Heroes). For that matter, what happens when one player copies another player’s work? Can they sue each other, and/or the developer?
  3. What happens when players (especially underage players) engage in “legally indecent” acts? Can EA (developer of Sims Online) be sued for letting a ten-year old operate a virtual brothel? Can it be sued by players who suffer real financial damages at the hands of a virtual mafia?
  4. Can developers be sued for impeding free market forces that generate real monetary value for players? (An especially interesting question, given that those forces are the key to many other potential liabilities on this list).
  5. What forms of gambling are permissable in an MMOG? Is it really legal for me to play slots in Second Life, given that SL currency has real world value?
  6. Do players have a right to free speech and expression? Can game EULAs contain (and developers enforce) a morals clause, like those in some employment contracts?
  7. At what point (if any) does a developer become liable for failing to prevent players from harrassing other players? What constitutes sexual harrassment?
  8. If virtual property has tangible value, how badly does a player need to violate a game’s EULA before a developer may evict them… without compensation for their virtual property?
  9. Can players use legal means to prevent the deactivation of an MMOG, or to force developers to open source a game prior to deactivation? (i.e. to protect the value of their property?)

I wonder how long it will be before the first in-game court system pops up in an MMOG….

PS. If I’ve missed any notable legal demons, don’t hesitate to comment.

Star Wars Galaxies Community Unravelling

Wired looks into the apparent unravelling of Star Wars Galaxies (SWG) following the so-called New Game Enhancements (NGE) which fundamentally changed the game and offended many of the MMO’s remaining customers (estimated at about 200K, pre-update.)

LucasArts released the NGE with little notice and without soliciting much feedback from current customers on the full scope of the upgrade. SWG producer Julio Torres claimed that an earlier announcement might have gotten “lost” amongst others. (He seems really defensive, in general.)

Sony Online Entertainment President, John Smedley, posted an explanation/apology on the SWG message board. (It was conspicuously deleted — I’ve linked to a copy.)

Key quote: With the game the way it was we knew we would never be able to attract enough people to really keep SWG viable as a business… it wouldn’t have appealed to the really large Star Wars fanbase out there.. and frankly over time the existing userbase would have churned out as happens in any game like this… The real purpose of this post is to ask for your help. In this thread, could you please list the top issues you see needing to be addressed in the short term. — better late than never?

Smedley also gave a (more tame) interview to Gamespot.

Only time will tell if LucasArts/Sony made the right call here, but it seems unlikely. MMOGs, like all other social constructs (i.e. neighborhoods, companies, etc) develop a fixed culture. Changing that culture is very hard; changing it without a major, extended socialization effort is near impossible. People get married in SWG … think they might get a little attached to the existing system?